Caste and cuisine— societal implications of Zomato’s Pure Veg Fleet

Zomato’s Pure Veg fleet had both a component of food preferences as well as a component of personnel preferences. The latter would be Untouchability by a different name, writes Radha Sajanikar.

What is ‘pure veg’? Are you a human or a box of Dalda? Why not ‘very veg’? Why pure? comedian Kunal Kamra asks in his stand-up routine.

Kamra’s words are humorous, but they necessitate a sincere reflection on the implications of our dietary classifications. Especially in light of Zomato’s decision to launch a ‘pure veg fleet’.

In India, we are witness to a conscious attempt to construct a homogenous monolithic national identity. The fluidity of people is boxed into a unified subject for the proliferation of a majoritarian identity which outlines a blueprint of what it means to be Indian on the basis of aggressive ethnoreligious aspirations.

The problem with having such a blueprint is that, firstly, it is a reductionist approach. It tries to compartmentalise the diversity of Indian identities and experiences into a singular narrative.

 What is ‘pure veg’? Are you a human or a box of Dalda? Why not ‘very veg’? Why pure? comedian Kunal Kamra asks in his stand-up routine.

Secondly, it inevitably leads to the alienation of those who are outside this narrow identity box. This results in the creation of ‘the others’— individuals who are mostly marginalised underprivileged sections of society.

In contemporary India, such a hyper-nationalist aspiration has found another realm to infect— cuisines. The hyper-nationalist aspiration has sought to forge a national culinary identity of sorts— evidenced by the lynching of people over the suspected contents of their lunch boxes.

Now this aspiration has integrated into our postmodern society, with platforms such as Zomato institutionalising and perpetuating these aspirations.

Moreover, the current socio-economic landscape of India, particularly in the business and political realms, also reflects a notable dominance of certain communities, notably the Gujarati and Marwari communities.

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Their disproportionate influence in these spheres has facilitated the corporatisation and institutionalisation of certain dietary practices, inadvertently leading to the marginalisation of alternative food cultures.

Historically, India’s caste system has sought to compartmentalise society into such rigid hierarchical structures.

The history of societies can, in part, be analysed as the evolution of food, for without food, there is no society. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has discussed food as a major way of establishing class and ‘distinction’ in French society.

The hedonistic pleasures of the so-called ‘post-caste’ citizens have led to a normalisation of a culture that dissociates food from the realm of caste. A culture where we eat prawns or clams in fine-dining restaurants without looking at their Dalit origins.

Therefore, it is important to contextualise this discussion historically to understand why such a move by Zomato will perpetuate caste-based prejudices and exclusions.

In contemporary India, a hyper-nationalist aspiration has found another realm to infect— cuisines.

When Dr B.R. Ambedkar was a student at Elphinstone High School, a teacher called upon him to solve a problem on the blackboard. Upper-caste Hindu students used to keep their tiffin boxes behind the blackboard

Fearing that their food would be polluted by his presence, there was a huge uproar and they rushed to pull away their tiffin boxes from him.

Now, when Dr Ambedkar’s statues outnumber the statues of any other political figure, except maybe M.K. Gandhi’s, we might think stories like this are history. But even today, there are reports of Dalit families being denied food at a temple feast and denied service in hotels.

Instances of people refusing to eat food cooked by Dalits, even students refusing to eat mid-day meals cooked by Dalits are commonplace. These are contemporary manifestations of historically entrenched inequities.

Throughout history, Dalits have endured systematic denials of access to essential resources such as food and water, as well as exclusion from communal dining spaces. There was a practice of relegating Dalits to consume leftovers from upper-caste households instead.

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Various Dalit subgroups were stigmatised through derogatory labels associated with their dietary practices. Mahars were called mrutaharis (those who eat dead animals), the Musahari were those who were forced to eat rats, and Valmikis were known for taking leftover ‘jhootha’ food.

The concept of ‘jhootha’ food— food polluted because someone else had touched it first— is also exclusively Indian and is a product of the practice of Untouchability. A lot of ‘Dalit cuisine’ thus includes dishes made from animal intestines, animal blood, chicken feet, small fish that bigger fishermen did not catch and even ants. Because at times this was the only readily accessible source of sustenance.

Despite the fact that many upper castes consumed meat, they often discarded leftovers that Dalits were left to scavenge. Thus, the notion of impurity was not inherently associated with the food itself, as both groups consumed the same animal. Rather, it was the individuals and their consumption habits that were deemed impure. Dirt was on the mind of Savarnas, not on the dinner plate.

Today, ‘Dalit dinner plates’ are tangible, palpable and edible manifestations of their collective narratives. While economic factors may have influenced dietary choices in the past, many Dalits now embrace their culinary traditions with pride, celebrating the diversity and richness of their food culture.

Nutritionists today prescribe finger millet (ragi) as a healthy food option for diets. These are what Dalit communities had to eat to live. Dieting or fasting, whether as a spiritual practice or a health trend, was often seen as a privilege— a luxury that was beyond reach for many Dalits. For them, concepts like food scarcity and insecurity were not abstract notions but harsh realities of daily life.

Historically, India’s caste system has sought to compartmentalise society into such rigid hierarchical structures.

But society at large has chosen to look away. Dalit food is largely overlooked and marginalised in mainstream discourse. It never ceases to shock that though almost 70 percent of Indians eat meat, somehow the mainstream national and international image projected of the country is that of a country of vegetarians.

The invisibilisation and dismissal of ‘Dalit cuisine’ from the mainstream is a deliberate tool to perpetuate the myth of moral and cultural superiority of the dominant castes and erase Dalit contributions to India’s rich cultural landscape.

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As these communities make progress in reasserting their cultural heritage and reclaiming their identity, programmes such as the Zomato Pure Veg fleet further exacerbate their plight by effectively ghettoising certain food into, quite literally, boxes of pure and impure. Zomato has jabbed at a festering wound to milk profits out of it.

Although the distinction gets lost in the din sometimes, there are two separate issues at play here. The right to have food of one’s own choice and the demand that one’s food is not touched by certain sections of people.

The first issue might ultimately resolve itself into a personal food choice. Some people eat beef, others do not. Some people eat pork, others do not. Still others avoid meat altogether. 

But the second issue directly slides into a dominion of discrimination, especially given India’s long struggle with ritual purity and pollution associated with caste.

It is not as if Hinduism and its associated caste system are the only ones from which this second issue arises. Muslims, for example, have a notion of ‘najis’ where they are instructed to avoid food cooked by ‘infidels’ and if it is unavoidable, to only have ‘dry’ food that has been touched by ‘infidels’ and not ‘moist’ food.

These ideas of ritual purity and pollution in terms of who has touched the food fly in the face of Article 17 of the Indian Constitution which expressly outlaws Untouchability. Zomato’s Pure Veg Fleet was an idea in danger of walking into this fraught territory.

Instances of people refusing to eat food cooked by Dalits, even students refusing to eat mid-day meals cooked by Dalits are commonplace.

The consequences of this extend beyond caste identity and intersect with religion. In an increasingly polarised climate, minority communities such as the Muslims would face heightened scrutiny.

There have already been instances of harassment, violence and boycott of Muslim-owned shops and restaurants. Even Muslim-owned restaurants that are fully vegetarian were boycotted. This is also an economic exclusion that will perpetuate socio-economic disparities.

In a society where vegetarianism is valorised with purity, the ownership of ‘pure veg’ restaurants by Muslims is seen as contradictory and suspect. The proliferation of this culture of suspicion for Muslim-owned establishments in digital corporate spaces, where algorithms make it easy to sort and profile them, will create a double bind situation for Muslim entrepreneurs who face discrimination not only for their religious identity but also for their economic endeavours.

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Through a caste lens, the legitimacy and validity of ‘pure-veg’ Muslim-owned restaurants is questioned.

The ripple effects of Zomato’s seemingly well-meaning move will cause a tide that ebbs away the ethical fabric of certain social segments.

Even as a vegan and animal rights advocate who personally encourages people to move to a plant-based diet, I do not support Zomato because I know it has nothing to do with animal rights or the ethics of veganism.

This is fundamentally a matter of caste dynamics, deeply entrenched within the purity and pollution paradigm prevalent in Indian society. The notion that the mere presence of meat could contaminate a delivery box, rendering it impure and unsuitable for vegetarian items, is a manifestation of caste-based beliefs. So is the demand that only individuals belonging to certain castes touch and serve food too certain castes and communities.

Zomato’s decision to withdraw the delivery boys’ colour-coded dresses was a step in the right direction. Caste operates overtly and covertly in urban spaces and delivery boys, often from marginalised communities, would have been disproportionately impacted by such visible profiling.

There have already been instances of harassment, violence and boycott of Muslim-owned shops and restaurants.

This was an instance of casteism, facilitated by corporate entities, permeating into more conspicuous urban and digital spaces. This conspicuous nature catalysed the level of backlash Zomato faced within online circles and the intelligentsia.

However, it is imperative to recognise that caste permeates our society in imperceptible and subtle ways, often overlooked or legitimised through the hegemonic process.

As a Savarna individual, I acknowledge my own complicity in perpetuating the silence surrounding caste-related issues within the social spaces I inhabit.

The clandestine nature of caste-based oppression is deeply unsettling, as it operates insidiously. It is so pervasive yet so discreetly woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Yet, caste does not exist in a vacuum. It intersects with various social, economic and political dynamics. As concerned responsible citizens, we must actively engage in conversations about caste and sensitise ourselves to its operationalism by examining our own biases, privileges and complicity in perpetuating discrimination.

By refusing to isolate ourselves from its complexities, we can work towards building a more just and inclusive society for all.

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